(Confession: I don’t “get” Twitter. I know what it does, I have two mostly-unused accounts and I don’t, in my heart, really understand it. Perhaps the best explanation I’ve seen is kathrynrose talking about using hashtags to see what snarky fun chat is going on about her favorite shows, as they are happening.)
Twitter is like being in the lunchroom with super-hearing, able to listen to everyone’s conversation at once, catching a bit of gossip here and a fact from someone’s science project over there. Because the lunchroom monitor won’t let you yell from table to table, you can only respond by chucking a paper airplane with a single sentence over to the other table. At the end of third lunch, someone gathers up all the paper airplanes and pins them to the wall in subject groups so that anyone who wants to can read what happened.
Facebook is the conversation you’re having with the people at your table. It’s a pretty big table, and you have to make room for racist Cousin Millie, because your mom will get mad if you leave her out. On the up side, you get to have all your friends from elementary school on there, too, and you only have to listen to them two sentences at a time. Half the people there are ranting about politics, the other half are using their cell phones to take pictures of their food and text them to other tables where they also have seats. The table feels like it’s in the lunchroom, but it’s actually at the principal’s house, and he’s selling the ability to electronically bug the room to corporations.
Livejournal is having coffee with friends at the coffee shop. Even though you don’t know everyone at the table, they’ve all been vouched for by your friends. Everyone takes turns talking for a few minutes about something they’re really passionate about, or how their day went, and there’s a lot of group hugging. Everyone is, in internet years, Age Dinosaur, and so the conversation has slowed down a lot, with a lot of people quietly drinking tea and saying, “Now, back when I had a Commodore 64…”
When I see my friends talking about the new Internet communities, and the perception that the older communities are becoming marginalized, two things strike me. I think there’s a huge concern about privacy that may be somewhat misguided, and I think we all know that we get out of it what we put into it—that part of our sadness about the lack of community is sadness at our own lowered participation.
(I’m partly quoting myself from a conversation over at xo_kizzy_xo)
I'm from the Internet’s early middle generation, somewhere between scientists at universities discovering online communication and AOL disks arriving in every mail. I remember BBS services and meeting at the bowling alley to put faces to names, and that everyone I knew online lived within 50 miles. In twenty years, my ability to connect has grown enough that I can make friends in India before I arrive, and sustain acquaintanceships with people I met there after I’ve traveled on to the next country.
I've come to feel that privacy is greatly overrated. If it's truly private, don't put it on the internet. One can still purchase a pink diary with a lock on it and hide it under the bed. In many ways, being able to be public—to share one’s personal life and thoughts online—has made us able to find like-minded friends in real life and online. Before the internet, what was an underwater-basket-weaver to do? Especially when they lived in a landlocked state? Now there’s an online forum for that, chat rooms, blogs, and one need never practice #aquaticcrafts alone again.
Two years ago, I had a conversation with my play publisher about schools making unauthorized videos of licensed productions, and posting them on YouTube. Should we be making students take them down? Was it hurting our copyright? In the end, we decided our problem was not piracy, but obscurity. Pirate video gets our names out there, it’s free advertising. And we decided to monetize it by selling video licenses that made it clear, you can film and you can post, but you must credit us and you must pay.
Facebook is a business. It's not the public library. The indignation about privacy is a little humorous—like showing up to a lavish party with all our friends, free food, open bar, great swimming pool, and then complaining that the host took pictures of us having a good time and put them on his office bulletin board to advertise his event-planning service. Or being angry that the host is charging the Avon Lady to show up and have access to all these great guests.
If we don't want to surrender our privacy, the answer is simple—don't come to the party. Don't eat the free food, don't drink the free drinks. Don't graffiti on the host's wall and then get angry that other people know what we said. Eschew the online tool and pick up the landline, and if we’re worried that it’s bugged, there’s still Central Park, where one can exchange coded messages in trench coats and pass microfiche in hollow umbrellas.
Most of us vastly overestimate our own importance. The (false) FB meme about “I'm posting this status to say that no-one can use my information” is ridiculous beyond its ineffectiveness—it presupposes that we are as individuals important enough to have our personal details ‘stolen’, and that it harms us to have those details traded as commerce. It’s no different than Mrs. Grundy giving her address to redeem her Green Stamps and having the Fuller Brush salesman buy the list so he can show up at her door. Annoying, yes. Irritating that someone else can profit by selling our information, yes. But as far as actual harm? None of us are really that important. Those of us who are, are either smart enough to not put our details out there to begin with or rich enough to hire staff to close the gate.
I’m on Livejournal because it's a useful platform until I can create my own blog embedded in my website, at which point I'll cross-post. I like seeing what people are up to, and I enjoy learning more about personal concerns, but the life I myself want to have on LJ is primarily a public life—I want to share my writing, I want to connect with other writers. Having people who are also friends is a pleasant bonus. Cynical, perhaps, but this is also because my writer-life is about making the personal public and taking the public personally.
I take this pretty seriously. As a writer, I feel an obligation to honesty, to be my real self (gussied up with good structure and a reasonable sense of voice and craft) even online. I also feel an obligation to the community. One of the factors in my LJIdol victory (that year-long writing contest a bunch of us did) was that I read and commented on every contest entry, every week. Now, I read everything on my friendslist and I comment on about half, making sure I keep in touch with everyone. “LJ Maintenance—comments and flist” is an automatically-generated task that pops up every morning in my list app. It’s a joy to read what friends are writing, see what interests them, be part of a larger discussion among thoughtful people. I take it as a fun challenge to write journal entries that generate comment and Facebook statuses that get a lot of likes. I want to be entertaining, and thought-provoking, to make people think, “Hey, Allison’s fun, wonder what she’s up to?”
Eventually, I will monetize this. I’m writing a book (two books), I’m sending out submissions to magazines. And when they get published, I want people to read them. I want to have spent two or three or five years building an online persona and staying connected to my real world friends and acquaintances, so that potential readers will think, Well, I always love seeing her stuff online, sure, I’ll buy that book. Or even, Yeah, I know her online and I don’t get her, but I think you’d like her book. How much is my friendship oriented towards your life, and how much towards your book-buying dollar? And does it matter, if, as I've said before, "Being 'popular' and being 'engaged in the the community' are the same behavior with different hats"?
When we present ourselves online, if we want to be part of a community, it’s up to us to go more than halfway to engage that community. Even if our daily writings are the memoranda of our daily lives, we can ask questions, we can post articles for discussion, we can muse about our emotional and intellectual conflicts. Yes, our real friends do want to know when we’re having a hard time, but if our perpetual pattern is “my life is terrible, my life is terrible, my life is terrible, also, please give me money so my life will be less terrible,” why should anyone care? As human beings, we love fighters. We love underdogs. We want to see Hamlet working like hell to find out who killed his dad, not moping around the castle being existential. We want to be able to root for our friends, to help them grasp the moments of hopefulness that glimmer in their words.
It’s up to us to figure out what we’re working like hell for. What the mission of our personal life is, so that we can cast our problems as dramatic obstacles that inspire us to work harder, for ourselves as well as for our community. Daily life in pursuit of a mission is interesting. Questions invite responses. The braver we are about violating our own privacy, about putting ourselves out there into the world, the more we build community, the more we allow others to share our burdens, to sit beside us, to take our hands and say, “me, too.”
What did you do today to build community?